sun 23/11/2014

BBC Proms: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov/ Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov/ Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley

Two exciting trips to the country in a double Prom evening

Matthew Barley and Viktoria Mullova provided the highlight of the late-night Prom: a tightly sprung rendition of Kodaly's 'Duo'
Matthew Barley and Viktoria Mullova provided the highlight of the late-night Prom: a tightly sprung rendition of Kodaly's 'Duo'

Landscape painting may be dominated by the Dutch. But in music it is the Austrians who know best how to evoke the majesty of the great outdoors. In the first of last night's two Proms, one of the most awesome of Anton Bruckner's snow-capped symphonies, number five in B flat major, accompanied a new high climb through the Tyrol from fellow Austrian Thomas Larcher for two great musical off-pisters: violinist Viktoria Mullova and cellist Matthew Barley.

What was most peculiar about this concert was how the 19th-century Bruckner and contemporary Larcher seemed to have switched shoes. It was Larcher's frostily atmospheric concerto, in which characters shiver into view and melt into puddles of soloistic melodising, that followed the traditional stop-and-stare, bathe-and-bask idea of a symphonic landscape. Barley and Mullova injected electricity into the piece (much more so than the strange electric zither that was tucked away in the orchestra) but the work seemed to want to sit back, hang, chill in a Morton Feldman-esque liminal world. This was landscaping as dreamy Romantic vista.

 

Which is what Bruckner is usually about. Not last night. There are in general two tendencies when it comes to Bruckner's Fifth Symphony. The fact of it being one of the most structurally coherent and clever of his symphonies encourages some to academicism. Others breadcrumb the work in neo-medievalism and churchiness. Last night's maverick Israeli conductor, Ilan Volkov, did something quite different and extraordinary.

Out went the stateliness, the grandeur, the enormous fermata. In came drama, drive, motorway speeds and the narrative coherence of a film soundtrack. I wouldn't want my Bruckner to come only in this ultra-vivid, breathless form. But it made a wonderful change.

For sure, it wasn't beautiful or clean. The orchestra were scrappy. But you could see the symphony living and breathing. The jigsaw-puzzle construction, the themes coming together in a Modernist, choppy way like the Hammerklavier Sonata, was clear. The thread through the jumble of seemingly disparate themes and half-themes that Volkov crushed together like an accordion concertina was strong. And there was character.

It played to the strengths of the orchestra, who weren't on top form. The slow movement, which reverted more to type, lacked the string or brass muscle to satisfy. Doubling the horns as Karajan used to do would have helped. Still, with its abstract architecture (full of castrated cells dispatched in almost serial ways) clearer than ever, it became hard to tell which was more modern, the Bruckner or the Larcher.

'The late-night Prom was crossover at its best. No compromise. Total musicianship'

 

Landscape painting of the most raucous and spirited Brueghel-like kind took over in the late-night Prom. Barley and Mullova had stayed on to showcase their new album Peasant Girl, which ransacks several cultures (Hungarian, North African, Siberian) for some great tunes and forms, with the help of luminaries from the jazz, world and classical spheres (Julian Joseph on piano, Paul Clarvis and Sam Walton on percussion).

It was crossover at its best. No compromise. Total musicianship. The arrangements (mostly by Barley) helped. The particular colours assembled - cello, violin, piano, marimba, jazz drum kit - melded quite beautifully. Inevitably, each musician excelled in the genre that they are most closely associated with. Mullova was at her best careering around her fingerboard virtuosically, Joseph coolly riffing out quietly subversive bass lines, Barley jamming with style, Walton zipping silkily around his marimba and Clarvis fooling about minimally but with perfect timing on his kit.

The high point for me, however, was when the stage was left to Barley and Mullova and Kodály's Duo. It's such a unified, hurtling little double-helix of a work anyway, but in the married couple's hands it was hard to imagine that it more tightly sprung or the two lines more closely and passionately intertwined. That's what I call a day in the country.

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